In this essay, I’m asking why, despite all the incredible apparent progress of humankind in the last few millenniums, and especially the accelerated progress of the previous one hundred years, we are, on a global level, still quite far from living on what could be considered a utopia.
Of course, we may never be able to reach a utopia because as each year passes, we take more and more for granted, our expectations grow ever more extensive, and we will always be running on the hedonic treadmill trying to catch up.
Intellectuals may see it as a failure in four hundred years if the entire world had the same living standard as the top few percent of the world has now.
A recent example of this is how quickly the internet went from being a tool used by a specific set of scientists to a niche thing used by the more nerdy parts of society. Eventually, it became a mainstream tool adopted by millions and became an indispensable fact of life for billions.
All in thirty short years — one generation.
So now, something that didn’t exist when our parents were born may well be considered something people should have a right to access in a utopia.
On the flip side, many people also see the right to freedom from the internet as something equally important, and perhaps more.
One of the key reasons why we have not yet been able to reach a global society that could even be considered a utopia is that the way we adapt and take advantage of technological innovation and progress is fundamentally flawed. Unless we make radical changes to our thinking, we may never actually reach a Utopian state. More on this point later.
And so, let’s begin by tackling the first big argument: overall, we live in a utopia.
Taking the Other Side.
We are at a unique point of human existence because it is only lately that humans have stopped being able to understand what the immediate future is going to look like.
When the Pharos in Egypt set out to build the pyramids (I wrote the draft of this essay while sitting on a boat on the Nile in Cairo, so it feels right to bring it up), they could be pretty sure about what the future held, so that even a twenty or forty-year construction project made sense. It was unlikely that limestone, marble, and granite would be disrupted as building materials by a couple of teenagers working from a hut.
If you were born in 2700BC or 2650BC, your life and experience would have been interchangeable. People didn’t have an expectation that there would be rapid technological change, and generally speaking, life felt like a zero-sum game. If you ‘won’ in life, it was generally at someone else’s expense.
Compare this experience to being born in New York in 1950AD or 2000AD. While there are many cultural overlaps, it would be a qualitative jump of experience, not merely a quantitive one.
Almost everything going on in the 1950s was disrupted and changed in the next fifty years.
Because now it is so difficult to even accurately predict the next ten years, let alone the next fifty, we have, on the whole, become rather shortsighted. Politicians no longer believe in government as an agency for significant change for the better but prefer to act as mere administrators of the current state of affairs.
However, let’s look at a grand time scale, measured in hundreds and thousands of years. We may well be living in a world that the majority of human beings that have previously lived would consider close to a utopia, at least for the more economically developed countries.
Take a few trivial examples but highlight critical points about how difficult life used to be and some more fundamental changes.
Let’s take the fact that one can now travel all across Europe without even the remote possibility that you will be stopped by a gang of bandits who will kill your entire traveling party and steal everything you have. You don’t even need a traveling party made up of a retinue of armed soldiers, servants, and cooks because everything can be provided for you at almost every destination you wish to go to, without much, if any, prior planning.
I quite literally did this last year. I traveled across most of Europe and even Latin America without knowing where I would be the following week.
The fact that you can communicate with almost any part of the world instantly regardless of distance or geography is another fact that would appear to be like magic to anyone living even a few hundred years ago.
It is often said that any considerable enough advancement in technology is eventually indistinguishable from magic.
The entire “on-demand” economy is even surprising to us right now, let alone to anyone who lived in previous ages. The fact that the largest taxi company in the world doesn’t own any taxis, and the largest accommodation company in the world doesn’t own the rooms it rents, or that the largest travel company in the world is a mobile app is still quite surprising some level.
A great indication of what has happened recently can be seen by looking at the most valuable companies in the world by market capitalizations, which gives a strong signal about what million of investors globally think has some value.
In the past, the top five companies in the United States by market capitalization were often banks, oil companies, or industrial conglomerates. Now, technology companies employ far fewer people and yet have an even more fundamental role in society by using the leverage of software distribution.
So, in a major capital city in the world, anyone who was catapulted five hundred or more years into the future into the current year of 2017 would probably be very impressed (or, let’s be blunt, completely mindfucked) about the vast improvements in technology. It would probably take this hypothetical person weeks or months to understand how things have progressed so fully.
However, if we took this hypothetical person on a full tour of the world, he may not be so convinced that we’ve quite reached the utopia that we have imagined.
Interesting Problems with Defining a Utopia.
While it is easy for anyone (and I’ve tried) to list a few things that they would like to change about society to make it closer to a Utopia, there are some real philosophical problems in defining a Utopia, which manifest themselves right into practical issues that many governments face today.
The dictionary definition is:
A utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens.
Of course, the critical problem with creating a utopia is defining it, practically speaking.
Some would say that an ideal society would promote individual freedom, and some may even state that it should encourage personal happiness.
Of course, if your idea of happiness is raping little girls, that’s not acceptable for various reasons, and someone needs to step in and stop that.
The real issue is how much we prefer freedom, and the chaos that comes with it, versus control and the security and predictability that comes with that.
Of course, as the famous saying goes, if you give up liberty for security, you end with neither liberty nor security. Because, of course, it depends on who is doing the controlling. If it’s a white supremacist and you happen to be black, that is probably not good.
We can take a practical example and look at drug usage. This has been a hot topic for a long time since many drugs are illegal, and many felons in prisons worldwide are there for drug-related crimes.
Should individuals have the freedom to take and sell drugs as they see fit? With the same type of regulations that food manufacturers have, to ensure that the drugs are not mixed with any lethal or unhealthy cutting agents?
I’ve personally been pro-drug use while not being a drug user myself, as I feel that it is not logical to allow tobacco and alcohol to be legal while drugs like marijuana and cocaine will land you in jail.
I’ve also seen firsthand how drugs can destroy people, but the same argument can be made for alcohol, which has destroyed millions of people and families over the centuries.
Additionally, we need to think through the issues with creating rules for everyone just because some people cannot live life responsibly.
I’ve occasionally smoked marijuana when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, but I didn’t let it take over my life and ruin any opportunities. Why should I be penalized because someone else can handle pleasurable and dangerous substances in a controlled manner?
It has been argued by many philosophers in the past that the state or governing body of a nation should only step into the private lives of citizens whenever their actions may diminish the happiness and freedom of others, but that it should not step in to save you from yourself.
So if you want to drink yourself to death, you should be free to do so.
It’s a tough argument.
Again, freedom vs. control, chaos vs. security, personal responsibility vs. societal responsibility.
Of course, the most significant problem with creating a Utopia is that different people have different definitions of a perfect society.
A conservative Christian may hope for a society where nobody is homosexual and where sexual relationships are only between married heterosexual couples.
A more modern-minded person may wonder why we even have the institution of marriage and perhaps think that a modern society should encourage promiscuity in a safe, shameless manner so to allow people to decouple relationships and the feeling of “ownership” over other individuals and to raise children in a more communal way that may take away some of the chance or lottery element of growing up with good or bad parents.
This is the real problem in creating a Utopia, and it’s the fact that it won’t be perfect for everyone; because we are not starting from zero, but we already have a society and many different opinions on how to live, we then have to accommodate somehow all of these disparate opinions into one, which is what we are doing right now.
So we have a society that doesn’t please anyone or everyone but reaches a decently acceptable middle ground. However, I believe we could potentially do more than this.
The only way to create a Utopia would be to have a separate society in which individuals can opt-in if they wish to do so, and that will have specific rules of conduct that must be obeyed. Otherwise, the individual will be ejected from this society.
The only other way I can see that a Utopia will be formed is when humans and artificial intelligence finally merge. There is a central system that knows at all times what everyone is doing, and that will get rid of most of society’s problems. For instance, stealing and most non-passion-induced crime would cease to exist because you would be instantly discovered, and there would be no upside to a criminal undertaking.
However, it is interesting to explore the other types of limitations that this society would place on our behavior and if these could be easily reconciled with human’s innate striving for personal freedom.
For instance, if the computer powers-that-be decided that you could not have a child with the person you are in love with because society needs to optimize the procreation process to ensure optimal health and genetic mixture, would that be acceptable?
As of the early 21st century, this would not be acceptable to most people, but perhaps in the future, that would be a fair trade-off to ensure a well-functioning society.
Something, Somewhere, Went Wrong.
In the first half of the twentieth century, there was an incredible optimism about what the world had in store, and until the early 1970s, it looked like the optimists had it right.
Just sixty years after the invention of man-powered flight, we had commercial airlines that could transport hundreds of passengers at supersonic speeds, turning journeys that used to take weeks into journeys that took hours. Trips are slower today than they were back then. I am, of course, referring to the Concorde.
While the aviation industry has then stagnated for several decades, it has taken a true visionary like Elon Musk to propose a different way for intercontinental travel, introducing to the world the concept of the BFF (Big Fucking Rocket) that aims to take you from London to Tokyo in less than 30 minutes.
Whether this will be successfully launched and then become a commercial success is another matter. Still, the fact that someone is actively trying to do something new and different is essential.
It’s not just another mobile app.
The critical problem is that since the 1970s, there has been an incredible amount of innovation across all spheres. Still, there has been a concentration of invention and innovation in the IT industry, which has somewhat distracted us from the fact that everything is quite old in some ways.
While mobile apps and smartphones keep disrupting themselves, we’re not doing a great job and changing everyday experiences.
Reinventing the Public Toilet Experience.
Let’s take the rather banal experience of public toilets. By this, I don’t just mean toilets for the public, but all toilets that you may encounter in your day-to-day life, so those found in shopping malls, coffee shops, restaurants, airports, etc.
Let’s quickly create a mission statement for our new disruptive approach to toilets.
We can take a good mission template, such as the following:
We want to (what to win) in (where to play) by (how to win)
We want to create pleasant and safe experiences in public toilets worldwide by leveraging superior technology, hygiene, and safety.
For starters, toilets, as the first world imagines, are not that widespread. I’ve previously lived in Cambodia for close to a decade. While in the capital, Phnom Penh, you’ll find toilets of varying quality almost everywhere, just as you would expect in New York or London. As soon as you’re out of the city, it’s an entirely different story. Less than fifty percent of the population has access to an actual toilet. If you travel between cities by bus (not particularly recommended), the local restaurants you might stop for lunch will have a shack with a hole in the ground as a toilet.
Yes, welcome to how the world really is.
I’ve also lived in London for twelve years, and I know that something like this would be acceptable, but they would probably shut down the restaurant.
Why aren’t Harvard dropouts competing to disrupt the toilet industry across the globe? You would have seven billion users who would need to use your product several times a day. You could probably use technology to create a superior product that would be cheaper than local options due to the economies of scale.
I know what you might be thinking:
Hasn’t Japan already done this? To some extent, yes, but I’m talking about making the jump from the average toilet experience anywhere in the world to something truly revolutionary.
Let’s brainstorm a little bit and see what we can come up with that would be a good idea to apply to this experience.
The first issue that we’ve all encountered is the problem of hygiene. By their very nature, public toilets are not the most sanitary of places, but it is incredible how much we accept them nowadays, seeing as how many simple solutions there exist to our problems.
Another issue is one of safety, including both drug use inside these toilets, vandalism, and the potential for sexual abuse in these public/private places.
However, let’s try and think of something more revolutionary than all of this.
How about a public toilet that essentially requires no human intervention to stay hygienic, automatically reorders supplies from a list of pre-approved vendors while simultaneously using the latest technology to help people stay safe and healthy and encourage great habits.
The first thing I would look at would be making the entire experience “no touch,” which means everything from taps to the hand dryers and doors. You don’t want to be touching the same surfaces as other people right after you’ve been using the bathroom, it’s pretty disgusting when you think about it, yet that is how it works in most parts of the world.
The dumbest example I see of this is automatic soap dispensers, water taps, and hand dryers, and then you have to grab the handle of the door to leave the bathroom. This is stupid because it assumes that every person is civilized enough to wash their hands after they use the bathroom, but that’s not always the case, and so you then end up touching an unhygienic surface after washing your hands.
Another exciting potential is signing up to receive automatic alerts based on the analysis of your urine or feces, which would be done automatically once per week, anytime you use one of the toilets on the network. You could receive an email or text message warning of any potential problems with your health, with instructions on the next steps.
An obvious use for this would be pregnancy tests for women so that there would be far fewer surprises of unwanted pregnancies. The earlier these are detected, the more time the woman in question has to decide how to deal with her pregnancy.
The next thing that would surprise key intellectuals from the early twentieth century is how stubborn the working week has remained.
As technology improved, the working week steadily dropped towards the 35-40 hour mark from the previous 60-80 hour mark.
However, why not drop it to the 15-20 hour per week point?
The critical issue here is not a technological one but a political and economic one.
Russel Bertrand’s fantastic and amusing essay on idleness beautifully illustrates how the modern working week is a figment of our imagination and how we could quickly provide enough for all in society without such long working hours.
Technology keeps improving, and we are several orders of magnitude more productive than we were hundreds of years ago. A vital example of this is how improvements in crop yields have allowed the majority of the workforce to stop working in food production and thus shift from the countryside to the city, where they specialized more and more in various niches over generations. There was far more time to work on innovations across industries than there used to be.
However, the problem is that when technology and production increase, we don’t cut the working time anymore. We simply cut the number of people working or increase production, both of which have problems.
The strange thing is that we now have higher unemployment rates in many developed countries than before, while simultaneously the average working hours for the working people are increasing. This is kind of stupid. We have people with no work and people with far too much work.
Of course, people are not interchangeable bricks of lego that can be swapped in and out. A top lawyer will probably always be in high demand, and you can’t pick a person at random to replace part of their job.
However, if you ask the average person about their work, they are probably not doing what they love. Whatever happiness they have in their life is most likely expressed and created outside of their working hours, when they are living their actual lives.
I’m not saying that work cannot be exciting or fun or give you a sense of achievement or even happiness.
But, on the whole, we work too much.
40 hours a week is a considerable improvement from fifteen hours per day, as happened during the industrial revolution. But we can do better, but our current economic incentive system does not support this method.
Bertrand Russell gives a great example of a pin factory that develops a new technology to double the productivity of each worker. Because pin prices are already low, lowering the prices will not give much, if any, boost to the number of pints consumed. So the logical thing to do, if a society valued individual freedom, expression, and human happiness, would be to send the workers home after four hours of work instead of eight. The shareholders of the pin factory will make the same profits, the workers will be happier (and perhaps more productive during their four hours per day compared to the same four hours out of an eight hour day), and generally, society would be better off. Perhaps some of these workers may develop side businesses or hobbies that grow into extraordinary works of art, new philosophies, etc.
Except, that is not what happens. Instead, one of two things happen:
- Half the workers are fired, and half the workforce produces the same number of pins.
- Pin production doubles, which crashes the market, and half of the pin-producing companies shut down or are forced to do cost-cutting exercises to keep in business.
The result is the same, workers working eight hours to make pins, and then many workers unemployed, with no work at all.
This is not a logical way to run a planet.
Of course, complete centralization has been tried and has failed, but that does invalidate the entire premise. It may just mean that it hasn’t been done well enough, or the technology wasn’t available before to make good centralized decisions.
A famous example of this was how the planning committee for bread distribution in the Soviet Union went on a tour of Europe, and while in London, they saw all the bread shops and bakeries across the capital that were well stocked with bread and no bread queues unlike in the Soviet Union.
They immediately wanted to know who was the genius responsible for solving the complex problem of the correct distribution of bread across London to ensure that supply and demand were met correctly.
They were in for a nasty shock when they heard that there was nobody responsible for the distribution of bread across London, but that it was the work of the invisible hand of market forces, which ensured that there would always be enough bakeries and bread shops to meet demand anywhere where there was a large enough market for bread to make business feasible.
Of course, in the 1950s and ’60s, it was probably easier to let market forces dictate what was made and sold. Still, now with Moore’s law ensuring that we have ever greater computing power, we could probably solve the supply and demand of bread across London, without having to trust the market, which can be incredibly wasteful and efficient.
Now picture this, if we could solve this problem, and just the right amount of bread was made each day, with a small surplus that ensures that certain anomaly days of high demand could be met, then we would be in an exciting situation. We could then work on automating the industry as much as possible, reducing the amount of hours each worker needed to work to ensure that London was fully supplied with bread, and we would end up with many people in that industry working only a few hours a day while being paid the same amount of money.
Now imagine this being applied across industries all over the world.
Things are Pretty Good.
The interesting thing about the modern world is that life has become rather good if you are anywhere near the top. Travel is easier than ever, and life is ripe with opportunities, and you are likely to have several careers during your work life.
On the flip side, there are more people than ever before suffering because of scale. We have more enslaved people now. Estimates are at around the twenty to twenty-five million mark at any stage in history, but as a percentage of the world population, it is at the lowest it has ever been. Does this count as an incredible success or as a complete failure?
We find this duality across the spectrum of modern post-industrial societies, where things are great, but they can go horribly wrong, even if they haven’t gone so wrong for a long time in many places around the world.
At no point in history before the twentieth century did a single government have the power to cause complete devastation across the world, but it took the rapid industrialization of the war machine to bring us WW1 and WW2, which showed us what can happen when people get busy and organized, for the wrong reasons.
Nowadays, while we haven’t had such a major war for decades, there is enough military might in the world for things to go wrong really quickly, and it would be far more devastating than ever before. Our dependence on modern conveniences will ensure that if a global conflict ever breaks out, it will cause significant shortages of even essential goods.
As our supply chains become more complex, they are more susceptible to attack.
And yet, even with all these warnings, life for many is getting much better. For instance, over the last few centuries, the value has switched from being able to do manual labor to thinking deeply about complex issues and working in teams to solve more and more specialized problems.
This has the advantage of being quite fun, and working deeply has always been a reward unto itself, which has been known from the earliest craftsman.
Be The Change You Want to See.
So, while waxing off “what if” scenarios is always fun, as is reviewing the political and philosophical repercussions of such drastic changes, it is always helpful to also see if there is anything that we can do in our daily lives.
My advice here is taken from Gandhi: to be the change you want to see in the world.
While this is the type of advice that even makes me roll my eyes up in disgust, there is a lot of usefulness hidden inside. The problem is that it has been hijacked by some of the less believable elements in society.
But let’s take some concrete examples.
Do you want to live in a traffic-free city that’s clean? Then don’t buy a car and make sure you never litter.
Do you want to live in a society where door locks are a thing of the past because there is no crime?
Then don’t steal.